Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Into California, a Questionable Territory

The journey began December 5th, yes, but for me, the challenging, every-day-something-new part of the trip didn't really start until we passed Port Orford.
Port Orford is the tiny little fishing village on the southern Oregon coast where I lived the first 12 years of my life. My dad still lives there, and I rode in cars up the coast to the big city of Coos Bay and points north for most of my childhood. Seeing this very familiar stretch of highway from the bicycle seat was different and refreshing, but also a little boring. I was glad to be on the edge of the unknown.

We spent two days at Pop's place, resting, sending emails to likely prospects down the road for a warm place to sleep, and trying to learn as much about the upcoming terrain as we could. Although we were in the midst of a weeklong dry, sunny spell, we knew the weather would change. We also didn't know anybody south of Port Orford, and we'd been spoiled in our first five days, staying with friends and easygoing folks in towns we were familiar with. Traveling in winter has its advantages: little traffic, no sunburn. It also means you have to plan ahead if you don't want to be soaking wet and shivering every day.
Warmshowers.org has become more important in my life now than Craigslist, perhaps even more valuable than Google itself. It's simply a website to help those who like to host cyclists on the road connect with those sweaty, quad-sore individuals. The app on my phone allows us to see when a town has a Warmshowers host and to get in touch with that person. If they are free, they usually (in our experience, always) offer a dry place to sleep, be it a private suite or a spot on the living room floor.
Our next Warmshowers host was in Crescent City, California, a two-day ride from Port Orford. We took off on 12/12/12, my food pannier restocked with a supply of nuts, grains and beans that I'd strategically left at my dad's house a few weeks earlier when visiting by car. I had even roasted and ground up some almonds to top off our peanut butter jar. (Making nut butters is incredibly easy with a food processor, just pulse till creamy). The pannier was heavy, but I felt secure knowing we could survive a zombie apocalypse or something of that nature, as long as we had fresh water.

12/12 turned out to be an incredibly gorgeous day. We watched the sun come up over the familiar bay of Battle Rock just south of town, then put cleats to the pedal for the 60-mile trip to our first stop, Brookings, Oregon.
The highway took us over rivers and streams, into the forest and behind mountains. At one point, we climbed a long, tree-shadowed hill, and just as we neared the top, we heard the plaintive, familiar bleat of a goat that we couldn't see. We answered in our well-practiced goat voices. The hidden forest-goat answered a couple more times before we reached the top of the hill and zoomed out of range, down the other side and back into the brilliant beachy sunlight.

Getting to Brookings before dark turned out not to be a problem at all. We found a campsite just north of town and started the lentil-quinoa-eggplant soup a-cookin. No simmering here, though. We are using Hannah's MSR stove, which runs off unleaded gasoline or pretty much any other condensed fossil fuel (propane, jet fuel, etc) you want to fill it with. (We joke about feeling the pinch at the gas station when we "fill up the tank" and it ends up costing us 35 cents.) That's the cool thing about the stove. The not cool thing is that it's really, really hot.

Here's how I learned how to cook on the MSR stove in tiny backpacker cookware. The first time, I put the normal amount of lentils and water in the pot, and the heat scorched the food to the bottom in thirty seconds. I made a second pot by just bringing the lentils to a boil and shutting it off right away, then going on a walk on the beach for half an hour. When we returned, the lentils were pretty much cooked. We reheated them and we consumed the entire pot (which has about a 2-cup capacity) in thirty seconds flat. Then we had a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I spent the next day's ride going over my errors at dinner and coming up with the ideal solution (I hate wasting food just as much as I hate not having enough). In Brookings, I tried a different strategy: Individual soups. We have two tiny titanium pots, so into both went the lentils, the quinoa, the dried onions and eggplant that I made on our food dehydrator this fall, chunks of fresh garlic, various spices, and twice the normal amount of water. Hannah primed the stove and lit it with a flare that nearly took our eyebrows off. I boiled one pot, took it off and boiled the second while Hannah stirred the first. A second boiling, and we covered the pots and went for a walk on the beach.
Cooking is much more pleasant when it requires walking on the beach.
When we returned, we lit the stove again to heat up our soups and the hot water for dishes. Presto, delicious, filling soup! We ate it all, and some crackers, and didn't even touch the peanut/almond butter, which we left on the picnic table for the next day's lunch sandwiches. I put the rest of the food back in my food pannier and stashed it in the tent "vestibule", kind of a tent version of a covered porch.

The temperature was dropping quickly and the sun had long gone down so we crawled inside our sleeping bags and called Rachel. Rachel and Keith run the farm that Hannah and I have participated in for the past year and a half, and we miss them and the animals and the soil every day. In the early winter dark, in a nearly deserted campground, in a tent that was not quite home, her voice on the phone filled us up in ways that soup alone can't do.
After we hung up, the tent went quiet again, but not for long. Scratching and snuffling noises came from the area around the picnic table. Too cozy in our sleeping bags to do much about it, we made "go away!" noises and flashed our headlamps in that direction. Then we passed out and didn't wake up until the sun was well above our tent.
On our way to the beach for a quick walk before breakfast, we noticed a red plastic lid on the ground that looked a lot like the lid to our peanut butter jar. On the way back from the beach, my slightly more awake brain decided that it looked too much like our lid not to investigate, so I started asking questions.
Questions either lead to more questions, or they lead to answers, and I found mine in the form of the empty jar, half-hidden under a bush, licked clean.
We mourned, we marveled at the ability of tiny non-opposable thumbs to unscrew a lid, and then we moved on. After all, this isn't our territory. The raccoons, squirrels, and other creatures own this campground for most of the year, and survive off inexperienced campers like us. Being higher up on the food chain, it's probably easier for us to find the valuable calories that keep us going than it is for them, especially in the wintertime. I'm just glad the creatures were respectful enough to stay out of the vestibule.

It was the day to cross the California border, and the weather was appropriate for our entry into the Sunshine State. Although it was a shorter ride to Crescent City, we left early to restock on peanut butter and to leave time for the border crossing. From going across a couple of times as a kid, I remembered that it took a while for them to take away your plants and fresh fruits or vegetables, under the reasoning that it would protect California's agriculture from outside threats.
Apparently those who balance the California budget decided that this service was no longer a priority, and we crossed the line without seeing so much as a traffic cop. Passing the deserted checkpoints, I had to wonder if checking every single vehicle that came into the state was really an unnecessary measure for all of these years, or if California's farmers were now dealing with more pests and diseases. Maybe we would find out somewhere in the next 500 or so miles.

About ten miles south of Brookings, we entered cattle land, and took a detour off 101 through some serious cattle ranching areas - wide green fields that stretch across a long plateau from the coastal range to the ocean. Aside from the long cattle barns, the tiny town of Smith River was the only interruption in the landscape.
As we entered the city, we noticed that about a hundred kids were for no apparent reason marching out of their school's parking lot and onto the main street. We stopped, Hannah put on the camera again, and we got a great little video of our "welcome to California committee". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POEPq8yfKb8

The town had one burger stand but we had a new jar of almond butter so we continued through to a little boat ramp by the Smith River, where we enjoyed some sandwiches as we listened to the local anglers talk about the catch. Everywhere on the Oregon and Northern California coast, where you can't go thirty miles without crossing a major river, fishing is a big part of the diet and the culture for rural folk. And, lucky for the rest of us, fishermen are staunch defenders of wild rivers and unpolluted water.
Before we left home, Rachel and Keith gave us a bumper sticker that says "Let's stop treating soil like dirt." Fishermen won't let anyone touch their river water because it supports the fish they love to catch and eat. So why do people who love to eat things that come from soil allow it to be polluted and destroyed by unsustainable farming practices? Is it because a field blowing away in a dust storm doesn't have the same emotional impact as a stream of dead fish? Or because it's not as easy to make the connection between corn and soil as it is between salmon and river?

Too much thinking makes for slow riding, and we had a few miles to cover before reaching Crescent City and our warm shower. We saddled up the horses and soon were cruising down a redwood-lined road that occasionally opened up into more pastures. In about an hour, we were pulling into the tidy home of Gerry and Trudy, our hosts for the evening. Gerry is a cyclist and he gave us good advice for the road ahead and hearty black bean soup to fuel our passage. I realized that all of the people we'd stayed with so far were dedicated cooks who put a high priority on gathering around the table in the evening. Is this a Pacific Northwest thing, or the kind of thing that people who let wandering cyclists into their home tend to do? That's another question that time will surely reveal the answer to.